Footloose: Missing Shere Khan

By: | Published: May 15, 2016 6:02 AM

Not spotting a tiger at a tiger reserve might be the best thing to happen during your trip there

“It’s okay if you haven’t seen me today. Rest assured I have seen you. Hope to see you tomorrow”

— Shere Khan

I HAD just been back from a five-hour-long safari through the dense forests of Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh when I chanced upon this note—written on the leaf of a Sal tree—on my bed, consoling me for not having spotted a tiger on my first safari.

Like most tourists visiting the national park, a tiger sanctuary and one of India’s largest wildlife reserves, my fellow travellers on that game drive were also focused on looking for the elusive tiger, or Shere Khan, as author Rudyard Kipling preferred to call him in The Jungle Book, a book believed to have been inspired by the lush green forests of the state and a digital remake of which released last month. Me? I was in two minds. Yes, I wanted to meet Shere Khan, but only if and when he was ready to meet me. In the meantime, I decided, I would focus on the other treasures the jungle had to offer—its less-talked-about, but equally majestic birdlife and wildlife.

And what could be better than to do it ensconced in the lap of luxury? Banjaar Tola, where I was staying, ensured that. The jungle safari lodge of Taj Safaris—a joint venture between Indian hotel chain Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces, and South Africa-based luxury experiential travel company &Beyond—is situated along the banks of Banjaar river, overlooking Kanha National Park.

The lodge has been designed in an ecological way, so as to protect the sensitive riverine environment—“The wildlife is my landlord,” says Neel Gogate, the lodge manager. Each suite, or tent as they like to call it—there are 18—features bamboo floors, canvas roof and walls, and glass doors leading out on to a floating veranda overlooking the river.

With every amenity that you could possibly think of and more, it offers the best of both worlds: access to wildlife while nestled in comfort. Mowgli Trails, a specially-curated travel experience recently launched by Taj Safaris to celebrate Kipling’s 150th birth anniversary, is the perfect way to get acquainted with the jungle—Kanha’s forests are a mixture of Sal trees (the mainstay of the lush vegetation), tropical deciduous species and bamboo trees interspersed with meadows.

That night, as I sat down for dinner in a forest clearing, I closed my eyes and let the stillness and the sounds of the jungle wash over me. “Ninety per cent of tourists coming here only want to see the tiger,” Gogate’s voice broke into my thoughts. “We tell them that our naturalists will try their level best to show them the tiger, but, on the way, they will also show them the different facets of wildlife. Because, at the end of the day, if you have failed to notice that, it’s a huge loss,” he said, adding with a grin, “I tell them that I have SMS-ed the tiger your wish to meet him, but I haven’t yet got the delivery report of my message, so I don’t know whether he will be there or not.” Not to worry, I told him.

At 5.30 the next morning, as I clambered into the 4×4 safari vehicle for an early-morning game drive, our naturalist for the day, Narayana, who goes by one name only and prefers to be called Nara (“It’s easier for foreigners,” he told me), asked us what we were hoping to see that day. A chorus of ‘tiger’ resounded in the morning air.

We drove in through the Mukki gate of the park and, within a few seconds of entering, were engulfed by the towering trees and the humbling stillness of the jungle, broken now and then by the chirping of birds, whooping calls of langurs, chattering of jungle babblers, drilling of woodpeckers, rutting calls of spotted deer and the ‘cuckdoo-coo’ of the red jungle fowl. As I greedily gulped in the fresh morning air, Nara suddenly braked. There, he pointed out, a pair of Indian roller birds perched prettily atop a tree stump. A bright blue bird, with dark and pale blue wing patches, the bird, Nara informed us, flies in a series of dramatic swoops and dives. But why is it called Indian ‘roller’? It’s because the male of the species flies up during the mating season in winter and impresses the female, perched on a branch, by spreading its wings and rolling down, we were told.

We spent the next few minutes attempting to catch the pretty bird in flight. Just as we were about to move, a peacock strutted out of the thicket in all its resplendent blue and green glory. All of us went trigger-happy again, attempting to capture the beautiful birds together on film.

Driving on, we spotted a group of langurs sunning themselves in a large green open meadow. Ignoring us and the ‘click-click’ of our cameras, they went about their business nonchalantly, snarling at each other, with the young ones swinging from tree to tree without a care in the world. Observing these acrobats of the jungle, who spend much of their time on trees, but come down to socialise and play, I couldn’t help but be reminded of what Baloo tells Mowgli about the ‘bandar-log’ in The Jungle Book: “They have no Law. They are outcasts… They boast and chatter and pretend that they are a great people about to do great affairs in the Jungle, but the falling of a nut turns their minds to laughter and all is forgotten.”

Besides the characters populating Kipling’s magnum opus, Kanha National Park is also home to some other fascinating species. One of these, which we spotted in abundance that day, is the spotted deer, or chital. A stark contrast from the langurs, they are shy, reticent creatures, who go about their business as inconspicuously as possible. During mating season, a male deer’s call around a female warns other males to stay away from the area. The chital is also a very dependable source for naturalists and tourists hoping to spot the tiger, as it gives a sharp ‘ack-ack’ call on detecting any predator in the vicinity.

Talking of predators, as we moved around the jungle marvelling at its myriad birdlife and wildlife, there was no escaping the tiger. Even if we didn’t see it, it made its presence felt at almost every corner. From fresh rake marks on trees (tigers scratch the trees to keep their claws sharp, as well as mark territory, Nara told us) to marks of him sitting on the dusty tracks, Shere Khan was omnipresent even in absentia. We even saw some fresh pug marks—when you are looking at a tiger’s pug marks, Nara explained, you can only see the back foot if it has been walking at a steady pace, as the back foot always comes on the front foot mark; when it’s walking a little faster, the back foot goes ahead of the front paw, and in case of injury, the back foot deflects a little to the side. A little ahead, a fallen antler of a barasingha (swamp deer) gave us an idea of what Shere Khan must have had for dinner last night—“Tigers only eat the fleshy part of the animal and leave the antlers behind. The porcupine, a nocturnal creature, comes and feeds on the antlers later,” Nara told us.

With over 350 recorded bird species, the park is also a birdwatcher’s paradise. We might not have seen all of these on our drive, but we did hear the calls of a fair number. And that was a very enjoyable exercise, especially when our naturalist put words to the different calls. The call of the red-wattled lapwing, for instance, sounds like “did-you-do-it-did-you-do-it”. The one that I found the most interesting was the Indian cuckoo, which goes “one-more-bottle-one-more-bottle”. Then there was the brown-cheeked fulvetta (“daddy-give-me-chocolate”), Indian scimitar babbler (“what-what-what-what”) and puff-throated babbler (“I-hate-you”).

Besides these, the forest is home to species such as the rufous treepie, greater racket-tailed drongo, orange-headed thrush, common hawk-cuckoo, brown-headed barbet, white-throated kingfisher, plus a host of eagles, kites, teals, pintails, herons and egrets.

During our five-hour-long safari that day, we spotted many more animals like the Indian bison (or gaur) with its distinct white ankle socks, a wild boar crossing the tracks (stopping in fright every time the ‘click’ sound of my camera echoed in the quiet), elephants, one of the largest land mammals on earth, and sambar deer, with their characteristic ‘Mickey Mouse’ ears.

And then it was time to say goodbye. As we exited the park, I couldn’t help but feel woebegone, as I didn’t know when I would be meeting the jungle or its enchanting creatures again. After all, you see a tiger, you don’t see a tiger, you still love the jungle.

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